Kelly's go-for-it approach will be tested in NFL

Chip Kelly's aggressive approach worked at Oregon. Even if he cuts his fourth-down attempts in half, he would still have more than the average NFL team did in 2013.
Chip Kelly's aggressive approach worked at Oregon. Even if he cuts his fourth-down attempts in half, he would still have more than the average NFL team did in 2013. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: September 09, 2013

Oregon was up, 6-0, in the first quarter against intrastate rival Oregon State and the Ducks faced fourth down and 2 on their own 48.

Most coaches would punt in that situation, but Chip Kelly isn't just any coach, no matter how much he has tried to downplay his aggressive, outside-the-box nature.

"I think there's fallacy and reality," Kelly said in March during the NFL owners meetings. "I don't think very often we went for it on fourth down on our side of the field. It would be once or twice a season, depending on the situation. All those decisions are based upon the individual, what's gone on exactly in that game, not an overarching, 'Hey, we're going to do this.' "

Kelly went for it against the Beavers and converted the fourth down when running back Kenjon Barner darted 33 yards. A personal-foul penalty against Oregon brought the ball back 15 yards, but the damage had been done. Oregon State would hold and force a missed field goal attempt, but the message had been sent.

Kelly went for it five more times - each time past midfield - and was successful on the first four. The first-down sticks were beyond the distance most coaches would attempt - 7, 3, 5, 6, and 9 yards.

By the time Oregon converted on its fifth fourth-down attempt, the No. 20-ranked Beavers had been beaten into submission and trailed, 48-17, in the fourth quarter. The Ducks had won for many different reasons, but Kelly's assertiveness had set the tone.

Now that he's in the NFL, many have wondered if the new Eagles coach can be as aggressive in a league where a punt can sometimes be the best offense.

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst on NBC's Sunday Night Football, got to watch Oregon up close for three seasons. His son, Eric, played for Kelly from 2010 to 2012.

"He's not concerned about how other people do it, or what the normal standard procedure is," Dungy said of Kelly. "So I think you'll see a very aggressive play and I don't think he'll change very much from the way he coached in college."

Former player Rodney Harrison, Dungy's colleague on SNF, said that Kelly must coach as he sees fit and not based on public opinion. That will likely happen with the self-confident Kelly. But Harrison, who played for the as-aggressive Bill Belichick in New England, said that Kelly may need to reel in his impulses.

"This isn't college. This is the NFL," Harrison said. "There are a lot of good players and great coaches and they prepare each and every week. . . . I think there's a learning curve that he has to learn and he has to understand that you can't be overall aggressive in the NFL."

Risk vs. reward

Kelly's explosive offense at Oregon afforded him the luxury to be aggressive. Even if some of his defenses weren't dominating, he had enough confidence to potentially place them in danger. With an Eagles defense that many expect to be a work-in-progress, can he take as many risks?

"It's a risk-reward," Kelly said in March. "What's the reward? Obviously you get a first down. What's the risk? You're turning the ball over at that point in time on the field. So are you comfortable enough with your defense to put your defense on the field in that situation?"

Most of Oregon's fourth-down tries occurred in the opposing team's territory, though. The Ducks were successful on 20 of 31 attempts in 2012 (64.5 percent) and ranked 11th in tries and seventh in conversions in the Bowl Championship Subdivision.

Oregon was 14 of 31 (45.2 percent) in 2011, 22 of 34 (64.7) in 2010, and 15 of 22 (68.2) in 2009, when Kelly was head coach.

"Our system is what it is and he got us to buy into it. He trusted his offense, so we trusted what he's doing," former Oregon and current Eagles receiver Jeff Maehl said. "But I think that you've got to be a lot smarter with the ball in the NFL, especially with the way that teams can control the time."

Of the 3,916 fourth-down plays that were run last season, NFL teams went for it 451 times (11.5 percent) and were successful 49.9 percent of the time. Kelly went for it on 118 of 388 plays (30.4 percent) from 2009 to 2012 and converted 60.2 percent.

Even if Kelly cuts his fourth-down attempts in half, he would still have more than the average NFL team did last season. But with kicker Alex Henery, he may have less reason to be aggressive than he did at Oregon with a suspect kicking game.

"If you don't have a guy that can kick a long field goal, what are you going to do when the ball is on the 37-yard line?" Kelly said. "Will you kick a 52-yarder or are you going to punt it? If it goes in the end zone you have a net of 17 yards. Or do you go for it because you have a good defense and you're not averse to putting them on the field on the 37-yard line. Those weren't statistical decisions."

Neither was Kelly's penchant for attempting two-point conversions, even though mathematically the situation rarely called for it. At the Fiesta Bowl in January, Oregon scored two points after a kick-return touchdown that opened the game when they took advantage of Kansas State's having only nine men on the field.

"It wasn't we're gambling and went for two. They didn't have enough guys on the field," Kelly said. "We have a system in place where if you don't line up correctly we're going to steal two points."

In four seasons, Oregon scored on 19 of 25 attempts and the Ducks averaged 6.3 tries a season. NFL teams on average went for two 1.8 times last year. Former Oregon and current Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews said that he didn't think Kelly would be able to catch NFL teams off guard during the point-after touchdown.

"At Oregon, we never huddled or started out in the normal PAT look. We just knew that if they were tired or they didn't have the right lineup or formations, we could take advantage," Matthew said. "Then again, he's putting new stuff in every day."

Contact Jeff McLane at Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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